When Lyft decided to open a place where its drivers could interact in person with company employees it seemed like a good idea. Drivers could get advice, questions answered and problems resolved by talking to someone face-to-face rather than resorting to email support. For the many out of town drivers, a physical location would also offer a place to use the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee.
However, it wasn’t long after Lyft opened what it calls “The Hub,” at the corner of Kansas and 26th streets, last fall that neighbors became alarmed at the increase in traffic.
Located on the site that used to be Bell Plumbing – the place with the van hovering on a stick over Highway 101 – South Slope Potrero Hill residents saw traffic rise from less than a dozen plumbing vans that operated several years ago, to at least 150 Lyft cars a day. The Hub parking lot holds 30 cars; most drivers park along the street, where they can get back on the road more quickly.
Increased traffic, with associated noise and pollution, are only some of Hill residents’ concerns. Neighbors also say many drivers behave badly; double-parking, making dangerous U-turns or littering.
“The first Saturday they opened up our block looked like a stadium,” said Kansas Street resident Julie Drechsel, indicating that it’s not unusual to pick upwards of one-dozen coffee cups off the ground daily. “It’s a complete nuisance to have them on the block. It’s changed the dynamics of the neighborhood.”
John Panelli, another Kansas Street resident, likened the daily commotion to living at San Francisco International Airport. “They are essentially using two blocks as their own parking lot.”
The Hub is located at a rounded corner where 26th Street feeds into Cesar Chavez, one of only three roads leading off Potrero Hill from the east side. In addition to traffic exiting the Hill, three bus lines turn at the intersection.
The east side of Kansas Street has perpendicular parking. Drechsel no longer parks in front of her house because she fears backing out. She alluded to an accident a few months ago, when a resident got hit pulling out of one of the spots. Though the other vehicle wasn’t connected to Lyft, Drechsel said a traffic jam ensued that backed angry honking drivers for several blocks.
In December, a witness called police to report a two-car accident in which both parties fled the scene, leaving a bumper in the road. Panelli recalled the incident involving three cars, with one backing out, getting hit and being pushed it into another vehicle coming the opposite direction.
Lyft has responded by installing signs on the building’s exterior that hector drivers to use trash cans, not smoke in front of people’s houses and obey traffic laws. The company has also filed a request to have more City-maintained trashcans installed in the area.
After distributing an email address for residents to report complaints, Lyft decided to appease neighbors by curbing The Hub’s hours. Originally open Saturdays and on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., it’s now only accessible Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. According to Mihir Gandhi, the facility’s general manager, the initial schedule was structured to accommodate drivers who work day jobs and drive for Lyft off hours. The site offers a lounge space, and employees offer assistance on a variety of issues, including how to setup direct deposit, deal with SFO compliance, and explain why a driver might have been deactivated. It’s the only San Francisco location where Lyft undertakes car inspections for new drivers.
Last month, Lyft held a meeting at The Hub for neighbors to air their concerns. Thirty people attended, including District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen and representatives from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Police Department.
Referring to the traffic situation as “pretty intense,” Bayview District Police Captain Raj Vaswani informed meeting participants that he’s sent officers to patrol the site, with poor results. According to Sergeant John Bragagnolo of SFPD’s Motorcycle Unit, on a given day there could be 30 problem drivers. “I might catch one but if it’s not that one, it’s the other 29,” he said. The fact that different drivers arrive daily makes it difficult to change behavior.
Neighbors expressed unhappiness about having to police the area themselves. Sharon McGill, who claimed her driveway gets blocked five times a day, said she’d been writing down license plates numbers and taking photos to email to Lyft, but that isn’t how she wants to spend her time. “I don’t want to punish those drivers. I just don’t want them to block my driveway,” she said.
“You are very passive,” Cohen told the Lyft representatives, suggesting that they needed to be more proactive in dealing with problem drivers. She called their efforts “nice gestures,” but admonished, “You don’t want to own it. You need to have one or two people to patrol and make sure their drivers are in compliance with the law.”
Rather than better management of the situation, attendees wanted a reduction in the number of Lyft vehicles visiting The Hub. “You don’t fit here,” said Roz Foster.
While taxicab companies operating in the City have their own parking lots located in industrial districts, San Francisco’s Planning Code doesn’t address new ridesharing business models, like Lyft. According to Cohen and SFMTA Planning Director Sarah Jones, an assortment of municipal officials, including the City Attorney’s Office, have investigated the issue. The Hub is zoned for light industrial use, Cohen explained, and Lyft can legally operate there. “Zoning laws simply have not caught up with rapid changes in the City,” she said.
Jones added that Lyft’s permit is for general office use. There was no requirement for additional evaluation of the company’s activities to secure it, although she called the 150 cars the building draws daily a “gray area.”
Ray O’Connor, who captains the Kansas Street SAFE Neighborhood Association, suggested Lyft limit the site’s activities to just inspections for new drivers. According to the company’s calculations, that’d amount to just 30 cars per month. Vaswani proposed Lyft create a satellite parking site, from which drivers could take a shuttle to The Hub.
O’Connor’s association advocated for all-way stop signs on Kansas and 26th streets, supported by Lyft. Those signals will be installed this month.
At the end of the meeting, Gandhi promised he’d establish a hotline where residents can call in, rather than email, complaints to get a response quickly. He also said he’d look into having employees regularly monitor two blocks of Kansas Street, from 26th to 24th streets, and brainstorm different ways of educating drivers to follow rules.
“It’s going to take give and take on everyone’s part,” ended Cohen. “I just worry about an accident.”